I was struck by how quickly your promise to stick to a description of Hail to the Thief became a kind of meta-analysis—original and provocative—of the band and its oeuvre. What is it about Radiohead and its recordings that invites this sort of discourse? Let me start with making a stab at that.
Popular music, as you know better than most people, is actually a lot of different musics. Some of them give voice to the otherwise largely voiceless; some of them speak foremost to our bodies, get them to move; some vent anger; some tell stories. Radiohead's music has to do with none of these things, really. What Radiohead is concerned with, or came to be concerned with, is using their music to … well, to organize new modes of sensibility. By which I mean they are making art in the modernist way: valuing intelligence and discretion, challenging their materials and methods, making music that is (by pop music standards) "difficult"—that is, slow to reveal its manifold pleasures and ultimately about nothing so much as the thing itself. You brought up the Beatles, and how no one would have wanted them to go "back." Well, until the Beatles, there was no sense among pop-rock fans that any popular musician's (or musicians') music could grow through experimentation, unfold over time, be approached as a corpus. The Beatles and Godard more or less created the possibility that the mechanical mass arts could be self-conscious, serious, and "research-y" and continue to be popular. That's the "place" Radiohead is coming from, I think, not Oxford. (They were huddled on the other side of Oxfordshire at a "public school," learning about the modern composers.) The promise of Godard and the Beatles is now, 40 years later, most engagingly in the hands of Almodóvar and Radiohead.
And to keep the comparison going just a little longer: I think Hail to the Thief is Radiohead's Abbey Road—not a return to the band's alt-rock roots (that would have been the "Get Back" bootleg) but a recapitulation. What I hear is a band for the most part playing as a band again (after the push-and-pull-apart Kid A and Amnesiac sessions) and enjoying it, enjoying all of it: the intricate guitar patternings of the Bends days and the electronica that came later. They have been recording now for 10 years and are smart enough to know that bands are not forever. (Singer-songwriters are another matter.) Maybe recapitulation is not precisely what I mean—Thief is not simply a summary of what's come before. I hear a good deal that's new. The beats on Thief are warmer than on any other Radiohead album—a number of the songs begin with a friendly, syncopated shuffle, the drums (lots of tom-toms) and bass (lots of James Jamerson walks) getting more space and funking it up a bit. As you noted, they don't want to write songs anymore, but they clearly are taken with concise, dynamic, suspenseful pop suites: "2+2=5," "Sit Down. Stand Up," and others. And what about all the harmonizing (and not quite harmonizing) on the vocals?
You seem to be disappointed that there is no singing in protest—no overt political message to the album. I say, Thank Allah. I find Yorke's politics—at least as he chooses to expound upon them—by turns glib and gnomic. I love his voice, and I love what he give voice to as a songwriter: the nervousness and 3 a.m. foreboding that cannot be easily named. He's a shaman, not a spokesman, and his fragmented, imagistic squawks and chants make sense to to me—which is to say, make me anxiously aware of the ineffable. (There's that modernism again.) Put another way, he, like his band mates, are in the business of beauty, not truth. When "Sit Down. Stand Up" quickens, turns on a dime, then explodes into furious broken bass chords and electro-beats and monkish chants of "The raindrops, the raindrops," I'm hearing something I've never heard before, something, quite literally, sensational.
How many pop recordings that come your way today give you that?